6.26.2012

Would The Discovery Of Alien Life Spell Doom For Religion?

The vastness and complexity of the cosmos tends to bolster the faith in a creator for many. Certainly something so intricate and expansive could not have just 'happened.'

For many others, myself included, the more we learn about the cosmos, the more we question the validity of religion.

Mike Wall writes at Space.com:
The discovery of life beyond Earth would shake up our view of humanity's place in the universe, but it probably wouldn't seriously threaten organized religion, experts say.

Religious faith remains strong in much of the world despite scientific advances showing that Earth is not the center of the universe, and that our planet's organisms were not created in their present form but rather evolved over billions of years. So it's likely that religion would also weather any storms caused by the detection of E.T., researchers say.
Many believers tend to compartmentalize their religion and their understanding of the world. How else would we explain geologists, astrophysicists, and biologists who adhere to a young-earth creationist belief system? (Yes, they do exist.) While this seems inconceivable, it speaks to the power of belief, and the unshakeable nature of faith.

While it is not inconceivable that people of faith could reconcile alien life with their faith, it certainly would seem to raise many questions -- questions that I often wrestled with during my time as a believer:

According to the Drake Equation, there are "at least 125 billion galaxies in the observable universe. It is estimated that at least ten percent of all sun-like stars have a system of planets, i.e. there are 6.25×1018 stars with planets orbiting them in the observable universe. Even if we assume that only one out of a billion of these stars have planets supporting life, there would be some 6.25×109 (billion) life-supporting planetary systems in the observable universe.

If we are to make a conservative estimate and say that there are 2 planets in the cosmos with intelligent life, we can extrapolate that there might be three major religions on each planet (if religions even exist on these planets). Considering that humans on earth only stumbled upon monotheism 3000 years ago, and that we have run through numerous deities, it is fair to say that none of these hypothetical alien religions are Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. What would that mean?

If Christianity is the one true religion, as many Christians will proclaim, did Christ also exist on these other planets?

If Islam is the one true religion, and if Islam doesn't exist on any other planets, are entire worlds of beings destined for Jahannam?

If religions did not evolve on other planets, what does that say about our own religions here on Earth?

Why do our religious texts (many of which are believed to be the word of God) not make any mention of life on other planets? Wouldn't that be a huge omission by an all-knowing creator?

Doug Vakoch, director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, doesn't think the discovery of alien life would have much effect on religious belief:
"I think there are reasons that we might initially think there are going to be some problems. My own hunch is they're probably not going to be as severe as we might initially think."

Rather than being shaken to its foundations by the confirmation of life on another planet or moon, organized religion may accept the news, adapt and move on.
Vakoch cited the example of Baptist theologian Hal Ostrander, who is an associate pastor at a church in Georgia.

"Dr. Ostrander is adamantly opposed to evolution, and yet he has no problem with the idea of there being extraterrestrials," Vakoch said. "He says it's as if a couple has one child, and then they decide to have a second child. Is that second child any less special? So too if God decides to have life on our planet, and then another planet, and another planet. It doesn't make us less special."
I especially believe this would be the case for many liberal religious people -- those who have not had any problems reconciling scripture with evolution, for example. These people do not tend to approach the scriptures literally. They understand that the scriptures were written by people with a limited understanding of the cosmos, and that much of the stories in the scriptures are parables, myths, and embellished accounts.

It is the scriptural literalists who may have problems with the news of intelligent life on other planets. If the evolution debate has taught us anything, we might expect them to doubt the science used to confirm intelligent alien life.

Or perhaps such a finding might finally be what allows these folks to evolve their religious views.

I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords.




3 comments:

  1. It seems to me that alien life would not necessarily be a problem for religion in general. But it WOULD be a problem for the REVEALED religions. The "revealing events" - Moses, Jesus, the Quran - would either have to be duplicated in all places where beings with a soul exist or else some other weird solution would have to be arrived upon.

    And maybe that's it. If the alien life was "only" a gnat or a dog or slime, then it could be said that they lack a rational soul and don't need anything revealed to them...

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  2. Christians would undoubtedly try to witness to an aliens that set-foot on earth and tell them their lives were meaningless without Christ. Arrogant humans.

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  3. Semitic religions may have a problem. Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have already factored in these possibilities. Their description of reality already includes billions of galaxies and vast time scales equivalent to time origins of big bang.

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